What Would Darwin Say?
On a winter night not long ago in Montana’s Bitterroot Valley, 200 people gathered at the junior high gym for a school board meeting.
The star attraction, a minister named Curtis Brickley, wowed the audience with his multimedia extravaganza purporting to demonstrate that life on Earth could only have been crafted by an “intelligent designer.”
According to Jenny Johnson, writing for the Ravalli Republic, Brickley “questioned the process of natural selection at the molecular level,” as well as “amino acids organizing into proteins with significant biological consequences, without the presence of a designer.”1
Creationism is a protest against the deification of DNA, both as engine of species formation and living template in whose image we are cast. Its dispute isn’t so much against particular findings of science as the general idea that “Darwinism” is all there is and all we are. The good reverend Brickley doesn’t deny that from a natural standpoint the body’s exquisitely integrated, multi-level, self-regulating, patterned dynamics rest on nothing more than the proper assemblage of amino acids on the basis of linear sequences of nucleic acids. He merely notes that such a skimpy setup might need a helping hand to flesh it out.
Though the creationism debate is generally framed in stark terms — God versus Darwin, religion versus science, superstition versus reason — the enemy camps are actually drawn from the same underlying philosophy. The dominant school of biology, known as neo-Darwinism, harbors a “mechanistic” ideology that weakens the case for evolution and leaves the field clear for the return of God, Master Mechanic, to the science classroom.
In the age of Newton, when the cosmic machine whirred and hummed with God-given efficiency, the apex of mechanical achievement was the miniaturized timepiece, a tribute to the power of human intelligence to impose form and order onto dumb matter, much as divine intelligence would have generated living creatures from water and sand. When theologian William Paley likened the organism to a watch, his intention wasn’t so much to diminish the glory of living things but to augment that of the Almighty, now portrayed as not only a loving father but a skilled mechanic laboring to realize pre-envisioned plans.
The chief innovation on this model offered by neo-Darwinism is to ditch the mechanic but keep the mechanism. If the machines crafted by our own terrestrial genius can run on auto-pilot, why not the universe? Even if the stars and galaxies are indeed the handiwork of a deity, once we know the program, we have no use for the programmer. In the logic circuits of the celestial apparatus, divinity doesn’t compute. God turns out to be the ghost in his own machine.
Newton’s absolutist, deterministic philosophy eventually broke down under the pressures of thermodynamics, relativity and quantum mechanics. The machine turns out to be as spectral as the spirit that haunts it. So it’s odd that only when physics itself had definitively punctured the Newtonian dream did biology capitulate at last to the mechanistic philosophy, disputing only the means by which the clockwork organism is conceived and assembled. In place of the intelligent design of creationism, we have the thoughtless design of natural selection. Either way, life is determined by external, universal forces, with organisms themselves playing no role in how they live or how their descendents might be reshaped.
Where biologists wonder how supernatural intelligence could be a scientifically meaningful concept, creationists ask how simple chemistry, even in conjunction with natural selection, could yield the most complex, well-formed, purposive systems in the known universe. Are we seriously to believe that the species of life—in all their splendor, precision and incomparable complexity—ultimately derive from random errors cropping up in the replication of DNA? The Hyacinth macaw can crack a nut with its beak that you or I would need a sledgehammer to open. Is all that colossal strength nothing more than a side-effect of a chance mutation in the macaw’s genetic toolkit? How many millions of such coding mistakes had to come and go before the right one announced itself, and at last the bird got its meal?
So stupendously unlikely is the perfect mutation at the perfect time that calculating the odds against it taking place even once exceeds our imaginative capacity. It is, in fact, a miracle. Now multiply this improbability for all the useful traits belonging to more than fifty million life forms, and you see just how profoundly and irredeemably implausible neo-Darwinism really is.
Preoccupied with the creeping threat of divine intervention into the sciences, the pundits of protein can’t see how their own favored theory is equally in thrall to the miraculous. Instead of a heavenly weaver stitching legs onto fish, a genetic hiccup does the trick. Like a toy in a cereal box, every defining trait of every species on Earth comes with a special mutation hidden inside. Genes, you might say, work in mysterious ways. We don’t know why the right mutation comes along at the right moment—it just does!
Given the choice between intelligent design and its demented cousin, is it any wonder so many Americans prefer the former? As long as living creatures are seen as devices constructed according to blueprints or specifications of one kind or another—a soul deposited by God or a code written by chance—we will be tempted to revert to the cosmic mechanic, who alone seems able to account for not only the astounding intricacy of organisms but our fundamental sense of life that it lives, that it strives to bloom and then bask in its brilliance. The neo-Darwinian mistake is to latch onto a worldview rooted in Protestant theology and try to hammer it into a naturalistic, evolutionary context. So unconvincing are these organic contraptions that pop out of thin air from nucleic accidents that a theory having literally no scientific meaning seems preferable to it. The result is a deadlock between the hopeless and the pointless.
Is there a way out? Well, as it happens, a certain 19th century amateur naturalist devised a theory of speciation not only rigorously scientific but compelling and believable to boot. Known as “descent with modification by natural selection,” its creator was none other than Charles Darwin.
“Throw up a handful of feathers,” says the author of The Origin of Species, “and all fall to the ground according to definite laws; but how simple is the problem where each shall fall compared to that of the action and reaction of the innumerable plants and animals which have determined, in the course of centuries, the proportional numbers and kinds of trees now growing on [Native American] ruins!”2
When it comes to issues such as ecology or behavior, the mathematical abstractions of physics have little to offer. Dissenting from T. H. Huxley’s concept of animal automatism, Darwin stressed the importance of individual will in shaping our actions.3 He further concluded that delicately balanced arrays of cells, tissues and organs cannot properly function without a “coordinating power” that brings “the parts into harmony with each other.”4
Whereas today evolution is commonly regarded as the blind interplay of natural selection and random genetic mutations, Darwin explicitly rejected this view, assigning only a marginal role to the “spontaneous variations” arising from “germ-plasm.”5 He argued instead that the chief source of variations subject to natural selection is the day-to-day struggle to survive in the face of competition and limited resources. Darwinian evolution is a model of clarity and common sense: organisms adapt to changing conditions and transmit their newly acquired behaviors to their progeny. Those adaptations that prove environmentally successful become ingrained and increasingly pronounced with each passing generation until a new species emerges from the old.
Ordinarily labeled “Lamarckian,” after the early evolutionist Jean Baptiste Lamarck, the inheritance of acquired characteristics could just as easily be called “Darwinian.” What distinguished the two thinkers was that Lamarck believed God had guided the development of life so as to produce Homo sapiens, while Darwin sought to explain evolution in purely naturalistic terms, appealing neither to the intelligence of a deity not the determinism of physics but the good sense of creatures great and small.
“I think there can be no doubt,” he writes in Origin, “that use in our domestic animals has strengthened and enlarged certain parts, and disuse diminished them; and that such modifications are inherited.”6 He cites many examples, such as young shepherd dogs that know, without training, to avoid running at sheep,7 domesticated chickens that have no fear of cats or dogs as a result of their ancestors having grown accustomed to house pets,8 and ostriches that can’t fly because their predecessors learned to kick predators instead of taking flight.9 He was skeptical that cases such as these — and there are countless more — could all result from a mysterious and random process taking place in the remote depths of the body. “Everyone knows that hard work thickens the epidermis on the hands; and when we hear that with infants, long before birth, the epidermis is thicker on the palms and the soles of the feet than on any other part of the body… we are naturally inclined to attribute this to the inherited effects of long-continued use or pressure.”10
The meaning of evolution is that species are self-created through the act of living and adapting. While physical forces are obviously important, they no more determine our form than theological forces, merely providing the anatomical and environmental constraints within which species define themselves. Regarding the origin of sea mammals, Darwin proposes, “A strictly terrestrial animal, by occasionally hunting for food in shallow water, then in streams or lakes, might at last be converted into an animal so thoroughly aquatic as to brave the open ocean.”11 Due to the variability of their bone structure, the very young can alter their anatomy through newly-acquired behaviors, enabling flat-fish, for example, to push their eye sockets a little higher with each passing generation. “The tendency to distortion would no doubt be increased through the principle of inheritance.”12
So crucial is the ability of organisms to inherit traits acquired by their forerunners that without it Darwin’s hypothesis simply collapses. “For if each part [of the body] is liable to individual variations at all ages, and the variations tend to be inherited at a corresponding or earlier age — propositions which cannot be disputed — then the instincts and structure of the young could be slowly modified as surely as those of the adult; and both cases must stand or fall together with the whole theory of natural selection.”13
But what if he got it wrong? He certainly slipped up with his fanciful notion of “pangenesis,” a hypothetical mechanism intended to enable adaptations to pass from one generation to the next. In the 1890s, more than a decade after Darwin’s death, Austrian theorist August Weismann correctly concluded that animals, no matter how much they alter their behaviors, cannot affect the “determinants” (genes) in their reproductive cells. If genes are the sole vehicle of hereditary information, as Weismann assumed, then living adaptations cannot be inherited, and Darwinian evolution must yield to a more precise, mechanistic alternative. The new theory, neo-Darwinism, took final form in the 1930s with the “modern synthesis” of natural selection and genetics.
In his magnum opus, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, the late Stephen Jay Gould reflected on the fact that no evidence bolsters Weismann’s assumption. Though he presented his argument as ironclad, a done deal, Weismann offered nothing to support it other than the fact that he couldn’t imagine how hereditary information could be transferred to offspring except by way of genes. “We accept it, not because we are able to demonstrate the process in detail… but simply because we must, because it is the only possible explanation that we can conceive.”14 Zoologist and author Richard Dawkins helpfully notes that the inability of creationists to imagine how the species of life could have emerged without divine assistance doesn’t mean God really does intervene.15 We might add that the inability of neo-Darwinists, including Dawkins himself, to imagine how an organism could inherit traits acquired through life-struggle doesn’t mean they aren’t picked up nonetheless.
As cell biologist Stephen Rothman observes, adaptive qualities belong to organisms, not genes. It’s the animal that must cope with jungle, desert or ocean, not the genome tucked away in its cozy nuclear compartment.16 Darwinian evolution makes sense because it places the organism, not DNA, at the center of the action. Neo-Darwinism, on the other hand, is reductionistic. As with machines, the best way to understand an organism is to “reduce” it — level it, you might say — recasting it in terms of its parts which, in turn, are “reduced” to their parts, and so on. Overall functioning requires no explanation because once the exact nature of the parts and their interactions is accounted for, the whole picture automatically falls into place.
According to Rothman, who has forty years of experience in the field, reductionism has severely impaired the ability of researchers to accurately assess their own data. As an example, he offers the vesicle theory of protein transport, a stupendously unwieldy model requiring fifteen to thirty mechanisms to move proteins a few microns. None of the experiments cited in the literature can prove these mechanisms actually exist but only what they would look like if they did. Proponents of the theory have never tested it, never saying, “If it’s true, then such and such should happen.” No matter how much contradictory evidence accrues, confidence in the theory never wavers. Why? Because it’s the only model that can account for the movement of protein according to blind, machine-like operations.17
At the heart of reductionistic metaphysics is the intuitive notion of contact mechanics, according to which a cause must be both temporally and spatially contiguous to its effect. Darwin was skeptical of this view. Toward the end of The Origin of Species, he takes Leibniz to task for alleging that Newton had introduced “occult qualities and miracles into philosophy” with his theory of gravity, which seems to endow matter with the property of action at a distance.18 As we’ve known since Einstein’s day, electromagnetism and gravity both allow long-distance action without material mediation. Contemporary biologists resemble 19th century physicists who still believed in a “luminiferous æther” said to mediate the propagation of electromagnetic waves through space.
Of all the post-Einsteinian physicists to take an interest in biology, it was the venerable Walter Elsasser who gave the subject its most comprehensive evaluation. A pioneer of quantum mechanics who later solved the equations for the earth’s electromagnetic field, Elsasser declared that the necessity of a material medium for the transmission of organic characteristics in no way follows from any known principles of physics.19 Rather than foreclosing on all other theoretical options in favor of an abstract system that casts genes as a kind of bio-ether, Elsasser suggested a new theory based on our actual experience of being alive. In fact, he remarked, we already have a perfectly plausible, commonsense model for retrieval of the past. It’s called memory.
“No principle,” averred ether-mad physicist James Croll in 1867, “will ever be generally received that stands in opposition to the old adage, ‘A thing cannot act where it is not,’ any more than it would were it to stand in opposition to that other adage, ‘A thing can not act before it is or when it is not.’”20. Having recognized that matter does indeed act “where it is not,” Elsasser began to wonder if it could also act “when it is not.”
Though typically associated with the brain, memory may be much broader in its impact, enabling the organism as a whole to grow and develop on the basis of similarity to previous organisms, particularly those belonging to the same species.21 In contrast to the “artificial memory” found in computers, memory in its natural state is the long-distance influence of the past over the present. According to this model, neural “memory traces,” instead of storing information about the past, facilitate our recovery of prior perceptions themselves. What reductionistic biology has overlooked is the possibility that memory is exactly what it seems to be — the retention of the past — and that embryos call up the organic forms appropriate to their kind in exactly the same way grownups recall where they left their keys.
Summing up the conventional view, science writer Matt Ridley asserts, “Something, somewhere must be imposing a pattern of increasing detail upon the egg as it grows and develops.”22 Elsasser might have rejoined Ridley with a riddle: where, precisely, is the past?
Elsasser’s approach, which he presented in a 1981 paper for the Journal of Theoretical Biology, solves several problems at once. Not only does memory account for the inheritance of living adaptations, it eliminates the need for a blueprint from which the body is mechanically constructed. Instead of following a pre-planned design, whether theological or genetic, the embryo simply mimics the developmental steps of its ancestors. And in contrast to the determinism of both creationist and neo-Darwinian ideology, natural memory enables organisms to play a role in their development and to influence the course of evolution. Between the randomness of molecular events and the necessity of physical law lies a probabilistic gray area in which a creature may choose to follow its species memory or — if environmental conditions have changed sufficiently — to select a new course of action.23 Elsasser’s organismic selection is thus the logical counterpart to Darwin’s natural selection.
Long-range information transferal among living things was inadvertently put to the test a few years ago by French researcher Miroslav Hill, who was studying the ability of hamster cells to withstand a toxic drug. Hill maintained two lines of cells, only one of which was exposed to the toxin. Of this line, predictably some cells died while others adapted and survived. What surprised Hill was that “cells exposed to the drug shared information for the adaptive changes with the unexposed cells in physically separated cultures.” Relatives of exposed cells benefited from the knowledge gained by their siblings, suggesting a common pool of memory embracing them all. After numerous repetitions and variations of the experiment yielded the same results, Hill concluded that the information carried on the backs of genes is complemented by long-distance “adaptive information.”24
The widespread phenomenon of parallel evolution, one of biology’s foremost anomalies, resists explanation along the lines of neo-Darwinism, which asks us to swallow whole the whopping proposition that the stunning, thoroughgoing resemblance between mammals and marsupials—to take but one example—stems entirely from environmental similarities, as though similar foliage and climate could cause virtually identical wolves, squirrels, moles, and jerboas to emerge independently on separate continents. Far more reasonable is the supposition that adaptive information can travel between somewhat similar species, enabling them to evolve into almost perfect alignment.
While Hill was open-minded enough to follow the evidence even where it conflicted with his own reductionistic predisposition, for most biologists an interpretation out of synch with the model of contact mechanics is unthinkable. So when researchers discovered that plants inheriting mutant DNA from their parents can still demonstrate the wildtype trait belonging to their grandparents, it was assumed that RNA contains a backup copy of the grandparents’ gene. The Scientist went so far as to report that RNA inheritance had indeed been established, later apologizing to readers for the error and noting that researchers had established only the existence of non-DNA inheritance. Left unstated was the possibility that not all inheritance is mediated by molecules.25
Much like multicellular organisms, the science of evolution can be traced back to embryological origins. A Latin term meaning “to unfold,” evolution originally indicated a fully preformed man or woman in the fertilized egg who simply unfolds in the course of embryogenesis. By the 19th century, investigators had noticed that at each stage of its development the human embryo resembles progressively more complex animal types, such as worm, fish, amphibian, etc. Though the embryonic “recapitulation” of lower species is imprecise and should not be taken too literally, the similarities between stages of embryogenesis and the adult forms of ancestors are nonetheless vivid and undeniable. It was on the basis of embryological data that Darwin identified mammals, birds and reptiles as “the modified descendents of some ancient progenitor, which was furnished in its adult state with bronchia, a swimbladder, four fin-like limbs, and a long tail, all fitted for an aquatic life.”26
Recapitulation, as historian Robert J. Richards contends, was the pivot on which “evolution” turned from a theory of individual preformation to species transformation.27
Darwin saw in embryonic recapitulation proof positive that life is evolutionary. Since natural selection operates on adaptations made by creatures after they’ve left the womb, it’s to be expected that juvenile and adult forms will vary over time while embryos remain roughly the same, echoing ancestral heritage. But for neo-Darwinism, which transfers the source of adaptations from life experiences to genetic mutations, recapitulation is a huge problem. Embryos are just as vulnerable to genetic accidents as adults. Mutations that streamline embryogenesis — thereby reducing the time and energy requirements of gestation — ought to be environmentally selected right along with those that beneficially alter the adult body. Do we really need a swimbladder and fins in the womb? Can’t we just bypass all that and go directly to human form? The persistence of recapitulation in utero signifies that inheritance results not so much from ever-malleable genes but species-wide memory of a past that cannot be altered.
Whether cellular or human, life is fundamentally a matter of habit, the repetition of ingrained behavior. A theory of life is essentially a theory of memory. How does the present come to reflect the past? While the body is certainly impacted by the immediate past, it also records influences from the deep past, a well of knowledge that informs all creatures as to the ways of their kind.
Neo-Darwinism mistakes time for space, compressing history into a molecule that obeys dead laws of nature, that is, laws that account for nonlife but not necessarily life. It’s not that life has its own laws but that we shouldn’t expect to comprehend them without referencing the fundamental qualities of life: self-existence and self-endurance. A genuine theory of life sticks to the methodology of physics, which explains phenomena such as motion and magnetism in terms of natural properties. Instead of grappling with the possibility that memory is a property of nature, biologists have evaded the issue by cobbling together a jerry-rigged substitute theory in which an artifice accounts for the same effect that follows naturally from memory. Our concept of personal, private memory is similarly distorted by placing in space what exists only in time.
Neurobiology regards enduring patterns of synaptic transmission as the marks of an information-storage system no different in principle from wax tablets, recording tape and computer hard drives. Yet our experience of remembering bears no resemblance to the technological model. Instead of the retrieval of accurate, detailed data, our recollections are vague and often wrong, just as we would expect from the restoration, if only in outline form, of prior subjective events. Memory brings the past back to life, not as picture-perfect representation but a feeling for what actually happened. Missing from the equations and formulae of neo-Darwinism is the fact that we’re alive, that our sense of identity is not some kind of auto-hallucination induced by concatenations of blinking neurons but the continuity of our own living history.
We know this. We know this perfectly well. But the wisdom that comes naturally to all living things, ourselves included, is summarily dismissed by those we consider experts. Biologists are indeed highly proficient when it comes to the “nuts and bolts” of gathering data from organisms but don’t seem to grasp the fact that science long ago gave up on the idea that everything under the sun is physically determined and stamped with the authority of mathematically precise law.
Among the chief lessons of thermodynamics is that molecules in a gas are indeterminate. We can’t predict what a particular molecule will do any more than we can specify which members of a talk show audience will laugh or applaud, though we can be assured that the audience as a whole will sound roughly like the previous night’s audience, itself eerily resembling the one from the night before that, and so on. While large-scale dynamics fall within the purview of physics, the actions of particulars are continually novel and unpredictable. With the micro level off-limits to deterministic law, thermodynamics restricts itself to statistical analysis at the macro level.28
As noted embryologist Paul Weiss pointed out many years ago, this also applies to the inner workings of our bodies. Weiss made a habit of debunking popular beliefs about life, such as our picture of cells as tiny factories with well-defined parts fed into smooth-running assembly lines. In reality, the cell is founded on molecular disorder. Large-scale patterns of cellular activity must withstand chaotic molecular reactions perpetually sweeping across the cytoplasmic sea. The smaller the scale, the greater the unpredictability. Holism isn’t just an opinion held by a few fringe theorists but a simple fact of life. “The only thing that remains predictable amidst the erratic stirring of the molecular population of the cytoplasm and its substructures is the overall pattern of dynamics.”29
Since organisms must maintain order in the large despite disorder in the small, how could a molecule be the prime force for order? As Weiss contended, rather than controlling the organism, mechanistic components such as the replication of DNA are merely tools utilized by the living system to maintain order at the level of the whole, be it protein, membrane, cell, organ, etc.30
Weiss wouldn’t have been surprised by a recent report from Scientific American that the top-down approach of modeling and predicting cellular activities is yielding far better results these days than the standard assumption based on genetic determinism.31 As he often remarked, it’s a long way from determining eye color to directing the construction of an actual set of eyes. Brown eye color follows from the presence of a pigment produced by an enzyme that results from the combination of several genes. If any of these genes is absent, so is the pigment, and the eye is blue instead. What does this tell us about the structure of an eye or how it works? The fact that genes promote distinguishing traits such as eye color means only that they influence development, altering it one way or another, not that they program and control it down to the last detail. That genes account for the many ways we differ doesn’t mean they provide the general pattern according to which we’re all the same.32
If genes are in charge, wondered Weiss, why does organic structure emerge first at the level of the whole body and descend, step by step, to specific tissues? Isn’t this the opposite of what we would expect from a process driven from within the nuclei of our cells?33 And if the body follows a pre-determined program, why does embryogenesis begin indeterminately, differing from case to case, as if the embryo must improvise until falling into a definite developmental pathway?34
The key factor in the organization of cells into organisms is not the copying of a particular strand of nucleic acids but the position of a given cell in relation to its siblings. A cell lying at the edge of the embryo has a better chance of individuating as a skin cell than an alveolus buried in the lungs, though both are equipped with identical genes. A classic field effect, this is no different in principle from metal particles aligning in the presence of a magnet or planets held in orbit around the sun. Despite all the hoopla surrounding genetic programs, developmental biology has long relied on holistic models, such as Weiss’ morphogenetic or “form-giving” fields, to account for the emergence of multicellular structures.35
In the 1970s, the little-known Director of Studies in biochemistry and cell biology at Cambridge University began wondering what the basis of these fields might be. Is the morphogenetic field merely a conceptual convenience for scientists lacking a properly reductionistic explanation or an actual property of nature? Though such fields, like those of physics, can be expressed with mathematical precision, surely they’re not just manifestations of eternal equations but evolve over time along with the organic systems they govern. Rather than descending from a bio-Platonic heaven, morphogenetic fields would be generated and stabilized by their resonance with similar systems that came before. The greater the familial resemblance, the greater the resonance and the more likely the ancestral organ would influence the current model.
If organisms resonate with predecessors of their kind, we ought to see signs of this in animal behavior. As it happens, the scientific literature contains numerous examples of such effects, including rats that negotiate a water maze faster if their relatives have already been through it, birds that take up the habit of popping caps on milk bottles more readily after many others have already learned the trick, and yes, even people who outscore their predecessors on IQ tests, though they’re not any smarter, just better at taking similar tests.36
The scientist responsible for digging up these and many other telling facts is the much-maligned, maverick theorist, Rupert Sheldrake. In contrast to Elsasser, who never gained widespread recognition for his work in biology and could always be written off as a physicist out of his element, Sheldrake is a respected biologist who’s struck a chord with the public and can’t be ignored so easily. In response, the neo-Darwinian mainstream has launched a campaign of hate and ridicule against him, starting with the 1981 publication of his first book, A New Science of Life, which the editor of Nature, John Maddox, proclaimed “the best candidate for burning there has been for many years.”37 Echoing Leibniz on gravity, Maddox later accused Sheldrake of trying to find “a place for magic within scientific discussion.”38
Fishing for a suitably “balancing” quote in a 2003 story on Sheldrake, USA Today dredged up Skeptic editor Michael Shermer, who obliged with his fatuous allegation that Sheldrake “never met a goofy idea he didn’t like.”39 Perhaps Shermer was referring to Sheldrake’s contention that psychic ties between pets and people — long attested to by pet owners — are not only demonstrably real but result from the same sort of field effect responsible for coordinating cells and tissues within bodies. What Shermer doesn’t mention is that the existence of such trans-species bonds is backed up by rigorously controlled experimental evidence. When psychologist Richard Wiseman claimed to have refuted Sheldrake after conducting a follow-up experiment, it turned out he had reproduced Sheldrake’s results and then misrepresented his own findings.40
For dogmatic skeptics, any concept that strays from orthodoxy — about which they’re never the least bit skeptical — is denounced as heresy. The tragedy, as evidenced by the recent decision of the Kansas Board of Education to revise its science standards, is that the reductionist dogma of pseudo-Darwinism only encourages the return of supernatural speculation in biology.
Perhaps it’s true that all the fine-tuned, perfectly timed interactions of cells, tissues, organs and regulatory systems—not to mention experiences such as desiring, weeping and laughing—are only the automated operations of an organic robot constructed through blind forces of nature acting on macromolecules in the dark depths of our innermost innards. On the other hand, maybe an omniscient, benevolent Being breathed life into a lump of clay and called it Adam. So, what’s the point? Why should we subscribe to either of these faith-based propositions when a sensible, scientific portrait of life depends only on the recognition that yet another complex phenomenon of nature can’t be explicated on the basis of contact mechanics?
As UC Berkeley professor Harry Rubin explains, an organic function as elementary as the timing of penicillin production in the mold Aspergilla involves astronomical numbers of possible gene couplings, so many possibilities, in fact, that the actual sequence of combinations that takes place inside the mold is “transcalculational, or beyond the power of any conceivable computer in a finite period of time.”41 Are we to believe, then, that the genome of a mold possesses a magical power of computation by which it determines the correct sequence of genetic combinations? Isn’t it more plausible that its genes simply mimic the sequence of steps long taken by their predecessors? And penicillin is an elementary organic compound. What about the creation, from scratch, of trillion-celled furry animals with big ears and buck teeth? Apparently, DNA is the one thing that really can pull a rabbit out of its hat.
Which hypothesis ought to furrow our brow — that statically inscribed in our chromosomes is the complete blueprint of living, dynamic, real-time bodies or that memory is a property of nature exploited by clever and resourceful creatures such as ourselves? Is it just another of those fantastic neo-Darwinian accidents that a mechanistic outlook reigns supreme over biology at the very moment human society is spellbound by its own mechanical creations? We inhabit a machine-made world where invisible rules of atomic etiquette are more real than struggling, suffering and learning, where computers are intelligent, and life is but an algorithm.
Darwin’s contribution to biology was not merely to recognize life-struggle as the main source of evolution but to shift the focus from the transcendent abstractions of theology and mechanics to the tangible and irreducible powers of destruction and creativity that play out day by day in the natural world. As he writes in the famous final passage of Origin, “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers…” such as growth, reproduction, variability and the will to survive, none of which reduce to any single Power, supernatural or otherwise.42
Isn’t it time for the Darwinian revolution to come full circle? Neither our own species nor any other is the passive product of external forces, be they intelligent or blind. To deny the first but not the second is to leave the revolution half undone. Darwin’s declaration of independence establishes freedom from any and all celestial proclamations, regardless of where they originate — in a book or with a bang — so long as they deny our birthright of active self-creation. As Sheldrake and Elsasser demonstrate, with a bit of imagination we can establish a basis for the inheritance of adaptations and thereby escape the sterile, endless clash of Tweedledum and Tweedledarwin. Not only can we conceive of biology without mechanism but we have no choice, as the ghost of mechanism past will surely haunt us until we’ve expelled it in all its forms.
1. Johnson, Jenny, “Intelligent design presentation draws hundreds,” Ravalli Republic, December 12, 2003.
2. Darwin, Charles, The Origin of Species, New York: Modern Library, 1993 (1859) pp. 102-103.
3. Gillespie, Neal, Charles Darwin and the Problem of Creation, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979, p. 141.
4. Darwin, Charles, The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication, London: Murray, 1875, vol. 2, p. 354.
5. Darwin, 1993, pp. 636-637.
6. Ibid, p. 175.
7. Ibid, p. 324.
8. Ibid, p. 326.
9. Darwin, Charles, The Origin of Species, 2nd Edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996 (1860) p. 111.
10. Darwin, 1875, p. 356.
11. Darwin, 1993, p. 282.
12. Ibid, pp. 290-292.
13. Ibid, p. 331.
14. Quoted by Gould, Stephen Jay, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2002, p. 202.
15. Dawkins, Richard, “Paranormal or Perinormal?” (lecture) Las Vegas, Nevada, Amaz!ng 3 Conference, sponsored by the James Randi Educational Foundation, January 15, 2005.
16. Rothman, Stephen, Lessons from the Living Cell: The Limits of Reductionism, New York: McGraw Hill, 2002, p. 8.
17. Ibid, pp. 138, 176, 161, 256, 260-261.
18. Darwin, 1993, pp. 637-638.
19. Elsasser, Walter, Reflections on a Theory of Organisms: Holism in Biology, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998 (1987) pp. 7, 140.
20. Quoted by Stallo, J. B., The Concepts and Theories of Modern Physics, Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1960 (1881) p. 86.
21. Elsasser, 1998, p. 93.
22. Ridley, Matt, Genome, New York: HarperCollins, 1999, p. 174.
23. Elsasser, 1998, pp. 5, 41-44.
24. Hill, Miroslav, “Adaptive state of mammalian cells and its nonseparability suggestive of a quantum system,” Scripta Medica, 73 (4): 211–222, October 2000. See http://med.muni.cz/biomedjournal/pdf/2000/04/211-222.pdf.
25. Hrastar, Laura M., “Is RNA inheritance possible?” The Scientist, March 23, 2005, http://www.the-scientist.com/news/20050323/01.
26. Darwin, 1993, p. 599.
27. Richards, Robert J., The Meaning of Evolution: The Morphological Construction and Ideological Reconstruction of Darwin’s Theory, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1992, pp. 47, 97.
28. Weiss, Paul, The Science of Life, Mount Kisco, NY: Futura, 1973, p. 20.
29. Ibid, pp. 39-40.
30. Ibid, p. 63.
31. Gibbs, W. Wayt, “Cybernetic Cells,” Scientific American, August 2001, pp. 53-57.
32. Weiss, 1973, p. 62.
33. Ibid, p. 28.
34. Ibid, p. 21.
35. Ibid, p. 25.
36. Sheldrake, Rupert, The Presence of the Past: Morphic Resonance and the Habits of Nature, New York: Times Books, 1988, pp. 174-180, 186-188.
37. Maddox, John, “A book for burning?” Nature 293: 245-246, September 24, 1981.
38. Quoted by Freeman, Anthony, “The Sense of Being Glared At: What Is It Like to be a Heretic?” Journal of Consciousness Studies, Vol. 12, No. 6.
39. Peterson, Karen S., “Paranormal is normal, controversial scientist says,” USA Today, February 26, 2003.
40. Sheldrake, Rupert, “Commentary on a paper by Wiseman, Smith and Milton on the ‘psychic pet’ phenomenon,” Journal of the Society for Psychical Research 63: 306-311, 1999. Wiseman, Smith and Milton, “Can animals detect when their owners are returning home? An experimental test of the ‘psychic pet’ phenomenon,” British Journal of Psychology 89: 453-462, August 1998. See www.sheldrake.org/D&C/controversies/wiseman.html.
41. Rubin, Harry, introduction to Reflections on a Theory of Organisms, by Walter Elsasser, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998, p. xiv.
42. Darwin, 1993, pp. 648-649.